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Paul Yachnin and Marlene Eberhart, eds. Making Publics in Early Modern Europe
by Rebeca Helfer

Forms of Association: Making Publics in Early Modern Europe. Paul Yachnin and Marlene Eberhart, eds. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 2015. viii + 334 pp. ISBN: 978-1625341662 (cloth), 978-1625341679 (paper). $90.00 cloth; $30.00 paper.


Forms of Association: Making Publics in Early Modern England, edited by Paul Yachnin and Marlene Eberhart, brings together a distinguished group of scholars to explore the social and political dimensions of Early Modern artistic and intellectual works, and their role in creating Early Modern public spheres—a term drawn from Jürgen Habermas’s work, which described the linking of public and private realms through political and social discourse, but here applied not exactly avant la lettre. Rather than assuming the existence of a single public sphere earlier than the 18th century, this collection instead seeks to define the unique qualities of Early Modern publics in their plurality, and to investigate the processes by which they were created. In part a memorial festschrift for Richard Helgerson (1940-2008) and his influential body of work, especially Forms of Nationhood: The Elizabethan Writing of England, this collection also commemorates the collaborative and interdisciplinary research project directed by Yachnin, “MaPs,” and specifically Helgerson’s seminal role in its formation.[1] As Eberhart, Yachnin, and Amy Scott explain in their introduction, the MaPs project began with an interest in the public sphere but quickly turned toward pursuing the plural process of “making publics”: the creation of “forms of association built on the shared interests, tastes, and desires of individuals, most of them ordinary ‘private’ people,” fluid groups influenced by new media (like print) and new cultural forms (like theater) (1). Richard Helgerson’s study of discursive communities in Forms of Nationhood and elsewhere made him a natural founding member of MaPs (even if, as the introduction recalls, he needed some convincing to join), and Helgerson decisively shaped the group’s early attempts to define publics, in part by helping to balance the group’s theoretical concerns with historicist methods—what they describe as his “insistence on testing theory against history and history against theory” (9). In the process of engaging Helgerson’s work in conversation, the essays in Forms of Association not only honor his legacy but also reconceptualize the role of discursive communities in Early Modern society in striking, original, and important ways.

Forms of Association divides into three parts, the first of which, “Writing Publics (Publics and Nation),” examines the relation between developing publics and the Early Modern state. In his essay on the politics of language reform in Early Modern England, David Sacks explores the premise of Helgerson’s Forms of Nationhood, Edmund Spenser’s desire to “have the kingdome of our owne Language,” arguing that the emergence of the nation-state was predicated upon formation of new publics—in the form of common national languages, systems of education, and institutions of the nation-state—which stood in contrast to the largely private forms of authority invested in ancient empire and the Roman Catholic church. Taking up Helgerson’s argument about Sir Edward Coke’s role in the writing of the English nation, Stephen Deng proposes that Coke’s codification of English Common Law helped to fashion a juridical public, not only to check the absolutist ambitions of James I, but also as a foil for the Roman imperial legal tradition. Torrance Kirby returns to Helgerson’s chapter on the “Apocalyptic and Apologetic” in order to rethink the relationship between John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments (1563) and Richard Hooker’s Of the Lawes of Ecclesiasticall Politie (1593) as mutually constructive texts in the formation of publics.

Part Two explores “Forming Social Identities and Publics,” beginning with Anne Lake Prescott’s essay on the development of English publics and national identity through news and gossip, slander and satire, about France, which positions this popular writing as an addendum to the textual forms explored in Helgerson’s Forms of Nationhood. Lena Cowen Orlin’s contribution reframes Helgerson’s notion of the relation between public and private in less adversarial and hierarchical ways, viewing it instead through windows and conceptions of display in order to describe the fluid, and gendered, interpenetration of public and private in Early Modern England. In her study of Dutch genre painting, Angela Vanhaelen elaborates upon Helgerson’s argument in “Soldiers and Enigmatic Girls” that posits the intrusion of the state and public into such representations of domestic and private spaces, suggesting instead that these political and national overtones helped to shape social and personal identity, allowing private people—especially women— to enter into the public sphere. Javier Castro-Ibaseta takes up the subject of entertainment and public making in Early Modern Spain in the context of Helgerson’s last two books, Adulterous Alliances (2000) and A Sonnet From Carthage (2007), and in so doing he extends Helgerson’s arguments in new directions, demonstrating that the rise of popular commercial literature contributed to the formation of Spain’s literary publics and, further, influenced Spanish politics.

Part Three, “Networks and Publics,” starts with Leslie Cormack’s chapter on the role of mapping in forming Early Modern publics, which takes Helgerson’s arguments about geography and chorography as a starting point for her own argument about their importance to local identities and radical political thought, exemplified by various editions of William Camden’s Britannia. Meredith Donaldson Clark illuminates the significance of John Shrimpton’s antiquarian and chorographic work, The Antiquities of Verulam and St. Albans, as a kind of commonplace book that drew upon writing by Camden, Spenser, and other authors identified by Helgerson as crucial writers of Early Modern English nationhood, and which helped to form reading publics by enacting the formation of textual monuments from remains. Patricia Fumerton elaborates upon Helgerson’s historical concerns in her essay on the broadside ballad, the creation and dissemination of which formed new publics invested in consuming and collecting these ballads. Vera Keller explores the importance of the Album amicorum, or book of friends, arguing that these popular travel-cum-commonplace books represented a new form of internationalism that emerged in conjunction with—rather than, as Helgerson argued, in opposition to—England’s burgeoning nationalism.

In Part Four, on “Theatrical Publicity,” David Lee Miller pursues the dialectical relation between the public and private described in Helgerson’s work, suggesting their interplay in the textual and theatrical representation of social spaces, illustrated in Shakespeare’s treatment of pagan Rome in Julius Caesar, which creates a space for remembering England’s traumatic Reformation and the politics of martyrdom. Jeffrey Knapp’s essay reconsiders Helgerson’s contention that Shakespeare’s plays (particularly the histories) aimed to please elite rather than popular audiences, and in ways that reflected Shakespeare’s own social ambitions, arguing instead that Macbeth represents not only the complex and mixed audience of the public commercial theater but also Shakespeare’s equally complex and ambivalent attitude toward this audience. Jean Howard’s chapter challenges Helgerson’s thesis about Shakespeare’s history plays still more forcefully by rethinking the divide between popular and elite audiences, as well as Shakespeare’s differences from other contemporary playwrights, and by comparing different theatrical versions of the Robin Hood legend with Shakespeare’s implicit rewriting of it—not least of all in the figure of Hal.
In an afterword that places these valuable chapters in further conversation with Helgerson’s work, including his contributions to the MaPs project, Paul Yachnin explores three related subjects: “What are Publics?,” “Discourses, Things, Spaces,” and “The Private and the Public.” As Yachnin acknowledges, “members of MaPs discovered—and very much under the prompting of Helgerson’s definitional precision—[that] publics are not at all well defined,” and that “much of the work of the MaPs project was directed toward the task of defining publics” (290). Together, they arrived at an understanding of publics as “vital sites of artistic and intellectual creation and collective action,” as “created, creative, and processual” rather than “hard-shelled, durable entities—as instantiations of cultural, intellectual, social and/or economic entities in which human aspirations were interactive with discourses, spaces, and things” (290-91). As Yachnin affirms, “the theory of publics serves to critique, confirm, and extend Helgerson’s work on the emergence of early modern England,” a critical conversation that like so many others—past, present, and future—owes a great deal to the continued life of Helgerson’s scholarship (293). The unique and vital accomplishment of Forms of Association and the MaPs project writ large relates to the new theoretical perspectives it offers on Early Modern public spheres, which engages with important thinkers from Habermas to Hannah Arendt and beyond, without ever abandoning Richard Helgerson’s formative critical vision of the historical sphere of Early Modern England.


Rebeca Helfer
University of California-Irvine 

[1] See Richard Helgerson, Forms of Nationhood: The Elizabethan Writing of England (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1992), and “Making Publics: Media, Markets, and Association in Early Modern Europe,” 2005-2010. 


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Rebeca Helfer, "Paul Yachnin and Marlene Eberhart, eds. Making Publics in Early Modern Europe," Spenser Review 45.3.16 (Winter 2016). Accessed April 14th, 2024.
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